Former Yankees manager Houk dies at 90
Skippered '61 team of Maris-Mantle fame; also Tigers, Red Sox
The Yankees suffered two significant and heartfelt losses over a three-day period last week. Now, less than a week since the burials of Bob Sheppard and George Steinbrenner, they must endure the death of a third prominent person from their past. Ralph Houk, the cigar-smoking, dirt-kicking Army man who rose from private to major and later from understudy to Yogi Berra to manager of two World Series champions, died on Wednesday.
The former Red Sox and Tigers manager, whose career touched those of Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Al Kaline, Mark Fidrych, Roger Clemens and Wade Boggs, passed from natural causes in Winter Haven, Fla., site of the Red Sox former Spring Training headquarters, at age 90. The baseball legacy he leaves is one of success and support for his players.
His legacy as a soldier is captured by his enduring nickname, The Major.
Houk replaced the Yankees' legendary manager Casey Stengel following the team's loss to the Pirates in the 1960 World Series and, in his first three seasons in the dugout, the Yankees produced 309 victories, more than Stengel's teams had won in any three-season sequence, three American League championships and two World Series championships.
He later served as the Yankees' general manager before returning to managing for eight seasons in the Bronx -- the eighth under Steinbrenner -- five with the Tigers and four with the Red Sox. Houk's final 17 seasons produced no championships, one second-place finish and one third-place finish. But he emerged from his time in the dugout with a reputation for strength, a temper, fairness and a fondness for cigars.
As Yankees general manager, he presided over the collapse of a dynasty -- the Yankees finished in last place in 1966 -- and the ends of the careers of Hall of Famers Mantle and Ford.
It was Houk who convinced Roger Maris not to take a game off while he was in the late stages of his pursuit of Babe Ruth's single-season home run record in 1961. He witnessed Bill Mazeroski's World Series-winning home run in 1960 as a Yankees coach, managed the Yankees in their Opening Day game in 1973 when Ron Blomberg became the game's first designated hitter, and in their final game that season, the last game played at the original Yankee Stadium.
His resignation immediately followed that game. Though he declined in recent years to cite Steinbrenner as a reason for his departure, Houk had made it clear after leaving the Yankees that he didn't see himself as a good fit with the uncompromising owner.
Houk was considered a tough, demanding leader, the kind that seemingly would have appealed to Steinbrenner. The Yankees owner applauded managers who argued umpires calls with energy, and Houk was a dirt-kicker long before Billy Martin, Earl Weaver and Lou Piniella covered home plate in protest. He also was widely identified by his baseball soldiers as a "player's manager," a characterization that was inconsistent with Steinbrenner's early sense of what a manager ought to be.
Houk seldom ridiculed or chastised a player publicly; his manner was widely appreciated. Because of his limited game experience as a player, he developed a sense of the challenges facing pedestrian players. But he also had a sense of how to handle stars. "The game's damn hard to play if you're the MVP or a guy who rides the bench," he said once in 1976. "I know. It wasn't easy for me. But I saw what Mickey went through and Roger went through. Great players who struggled like everyone else."
As a players' manager, Houk became a persuasive influence of three of the games more successful managers, Bobby Cox, Tom Lasorda and the late Dick Howser.
"I loved Ralph Houk," Cox said. "He was just outstanding. He was a great guy. I'm sorry to hear that, but he was up there [in age]."
"Ralph was a great baseball man who handled his players well and they played hard for him," Tigers Hall of Famer Kaline said Wednesday. "He was well-respected and a fun guy to be around. I enjoyed playing for him during my last year."
"I remember what a tough guy he was," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "He was a tough guy. As I said when Ernie [Harwell] died, I think that's a life you celebrate. I didn't know Ralph all that well, but I knew him pretty good."
Houk was a primary disciple of the unofficial baseball confidentiality doctrine -- "What you say here, what you see here, let it stay here when you leave here." -- that was prominently displayed in big league clubhouses into the 70s. His image, sometimes portrayed as no-nonsense, was belied to a degree by the presence of high-profile free spirits on his teams -- Sparky Lyle, Jim Bouton, Steve Hamilton, Joe Pepitone and Phil Linz with the Yankees, Fidrych with the Tigers and Dennis Eckersley and Oil Can Boyd with the Red Sox.
The Major wore No. 35 with the Yankees -- Berra had worn it before him -- as a player and as a manager. He was replaced by Berra as manager following the 1963 season when he "stepped upstairs." Berra's first Yankees team won the American League pennant with a late summer push and lost in seven games in the World Series. But the signs of decline were evident even then. Houk replaced Berra with Johnny Keane after Keane had managed the Cardinals against the Yankees in the Series.
And in Houk's two full seasons as GM, a period when Mantle's and Ford's skills eroded, the Yankees tumbled to sixth and then 10th place.
But it was Houk who had a profound impact on the two Hall of Famers in 1961 when the Yankees won 109 games, cruised to their first Series championship in three years and spawned the fascination that led to Billy Crystal's movie "61*."
He publicly characterized Mantle as the team leader and privately urged his center-field slugger to be more conspicuous in his role. He abandoned Stengel's conservative plan for pitching Ford. Rather than save Ford for starts against the more challenging opponents, Houk had his best starter pitch in a regular rotation.
Each change succeeded beyond the manager's expectations. Mantle, batting fourth and protecting Maris in the order, hit a career-high 54 home runs, scored 131 runs and drove in 128, finishing as the runnerup to Maris -- 61 home runs and 142 RBIs -- in the MVP balloting. Ford made 39 starts, pitched 283 innings and won 25 games -- all career highs. He won the Cy Young Award for the only time in his career.
Houk's teams produced a composite record of 1,619-1,531, including a 944-806 record with the Yankees.
As a player, Houk made infrequent appearances in games. He had three hits, including one of his six career doubles, and a walk in his first game and never had more than nine plate appearances after 1948. He career resume includes 91 games, 158 at-bats (92 in 1947), a .272 batting average, 20 RBIs and no home runs. He was on the Yankees' rosters each season from 1947, Berra's first season as a quasi-regular, to 1954, the year before fellow catcher Elston Howard broke in.
The Yankees played in six World Series during his playing career. He had two at-bats, one in 1947 and another five years later, and one hit.
A native of Kansas and the son of a farmer, Houk served in the Army after three years in the Minor Leagues and before his big league debut. He enlisted after the United States entered World War II, fought in the Battle of the Bulge and the Normandy invasion and was awarded the Silver Star and Purple Heart. On occasion during his managerial tenure, he would share stories about his war experiences. He had saved a helmet he wore that had two bullet holes.
He was as modestly proud of the damage to his helmet as he was of his achievements in the game.
Houk is survived by daughter Donna Slaboden, who notified the Red Sox of his death, son Robert, four grandchildren and 10 great grandchildren. His wife, Bette, died in 2006.
To honor the memory of Houk, the Yankees will wear black armbands below the Bob Sheppard patch on the left sleeve of their jerseys for the remainder of the 2010 season. Additionally, a moment of silence will be held in Houk's honor prior to Thursday's Yankees-Royals game.
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.